leekuanyew

Tough love meant Mr Lee put interests of workers first

Union leaders praise former PM for his firmness, foresight, mentorship

Mr Lee Kuan Yew was not afraid of taking the unions to task if he felt they were doing things that were harmful to Singapore.

But even if he practised tough love, it was because he put the interests of the workers first, said union leaders at a two hour-long memorial service last night.

Government, union and corporate leaders, past and present, praised Mr Lee, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, for his vision and foresight in ensuring industrial harmony, promoting productivity and enhancing the life of workers here.

He died on Monday morning, at the age of 91.

One of the clearest memories former labour chief Lim Boon Heng had of Mr Lee was that he was not afraid to put unions in their place, if they "went astray".

He told the 800-strong audience at the Singapore Conference Hall that they were in the same venue where Mr Lee held a tense meeting in 1981 with a group of Singapore Airlines (SIA) pilots.

Among other things, the pilots were unhappy with their pay.

"(He told the pilots and the management that) if the nonsense did not stop, he would not hesitate to close down SIA and start a new airline," said Mr Lim. The pilots backed down.

For former President S R Nathan, who served as pioneer director of NTUC's administration and research unit from 1962 to 1966, Mr Lee's firmness in dealing with the trade unions was crucial in the turbulent days after independence.

"There were occasions he admonished us and addressed our destructive ways," said Mr Nathan.

"Only to return to the management the right to manage their enterprises successfully, which in turn benefited us, the worker, with better incomes and working conditions."

Many of the 14 speakers in the service also lauded Mr Lee's foresight in anticipating problems and finding solutions to them.

One problem he anticipated clearly was the ageing workforce.

Former manpower minister Lee Boon Yang, said that soon after the Retirement Age Act was passed in 1993, Mr Lee was already asking him to raise the retirement age to beyond 60.

"We had barely taken the first step and he was already thinking of the next step. That is a measure of the man he was," said Mr Lee, who is also chairman of Singapore Press Holdings and Keppel Corporation.

Singapore National Employers Federation's former president Stephen Lee agreed.

"He could see the outcome of a declining birth rate. He was already thinking of retirement age beyond 60. Today, we are looking at re-employment at 67," he said.

But for National Trades Union Congress secretary-general Lim Swee Say, Mr Lee was more than a just a leader; he was a mentor.

Once, when Mr Lim told Mr Lee that a foreign leader said that Singapore's method was difficult to learn, Mr Lee replied that countries should adapt good ideas and "come up with their own solution in an eclectic way".

He looked at Mr Lim and asked if he knew what that meant. Mr Lim said no, so Mr Lee gave him a dictionary.

"After a second or two, he asked, 'Do you know how to spell eclectic?'" he said to laughter.

"He then turned the pages and showed me the meaning of eclectic, which is taking the best features from various systems and putting them together in a smart way that will work better for us."

Mr Lee also gave him personal advice when he took on the role as the NTUC secretary-general back in 2007, something that future union leaders will not have, said Mr Lim.

Choking back the tears, Mr Lim said: "Mr Lee spent his whole life ensuring Singapore's survival and the livelihood of the people. We are forever grateful for his devotion."

ameltan@sph.com.sg

joseow@sph.com.sg